Syria Digital Lab: Unlocking The Potential Of The Syrian Digital Space
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With an aim to “create an effective digital ecosystem that identifies, connects, incubates, accelerates and sustains Syrian-led digital initiatives,” the idea for Syria Digital Lab (SDL) came into being in 2018 when co-founder Malik Al-Abdeh was trying to figure out ways to bring the people of Syria together and help them build up their lives after many years of conflict.
“I wanted to focus on youth, who were at risk of becoming a lost generation due to the disruption of their education,” Al-Abdeh says. “To me, it made perfect sense to focus on digital interventions, because of the obvious access issues and the dispersal of Syrians in the diaspora. Through digital means you can reach a massive number of young people, and offer them educational and training opportunities as a way of plugging them into the digital economy. In order to achieve this, I believe Syria needed a digital ecosystem to connect all players in the digital space. Through SDL, we aim to bring the private, public and NGO sectors together with Syrian digital innovators, creators, disruptors, and of course, entrepreneurs. We want to achieve a sustainable, highly-networked community of Syrian entrepreneurs who can realize an idea into a successful digital business.”
SDL recently conducted its first startup competition, which invited applications from entrepreneurs who are building digital solutions addressing the Syrian community's education, healthcare, and youth engagement challenges. “We will be evaluating the applications based on a number of requirements,” says Al-Abdeh. “First and foremost, we want to ensure the solution is tech-powered, feasible and that it creatively addresses the challenges Syrians face either locally or in the diaspora. As with any business plan competition, we want to understand the maturity of the project, the team behind it, the scalability, and financial sustainability.”
As for what winners of the competition can expect, Al-Abdeh points to a variety of benefits. “Syria Digital Lab offers both financial support, in addition to mentorship and training,” he explains. “Through our partners, the Syrian International Business Association (SIBA), VIP.Fund (Very Important Projects Fund), and Syria Youth Assembly, we offer competition finalists access to a large network of investors, counselors, mentors and marketers. These individuals and organizations offer support depending on the needs of the organizations, and regardless of age or stage.”
VIP.Fund co-founder Rama Chakaki is also a co-founder at SDL, with Al-Abdeh paying credit to her experience in the startup, angel investment, and venture capital worlds as being integral to the initiative’s development and growth, noting, “Without her, this project would not have moved in the direction that it did.”
SDL has also benefited from funds provided by the European Union(EU), Al-Abdeh reveals. “When I pitched SDL to the EU in September 2018, they were interested, and asked me to develop the idea further,” he recalls. “The EU and Germany gave us a modest amount of funding to present the SDL concept at an event on the opening day of the Brussels III Donor Conference in March 2019. The reception we received was amazing. For the first time in a long time, more than one thousand attendees, most of whom were government officials, heads of INGOs, and civil society organizations, were listening to an idea for the future of Syria that was fresh, exciting, and promised hope. We need to continue drawing attention to the need for bigger investment in the Syrian digital space to create that vital ecosystem, and that’s what we are doing.”
As for how he sees SDL grow and develop in the future, Al-Abdeh says that the initiative is all about bringing people together on a shared vision. “It is a political in the sense that it does not favor one or the other of the warring sides in Syria,” he explains. “It’s about Syrians, primarily young Syrians from all around the world, gaining access to training and mentorship, developing ideas, and securing investment. As long as you are connected to the Internet, you’re good to go.”
At the same time, Al-Abdeh doesn’t discount the potential it has to reach people across Syria. “SDL cuts across the various segments of Syrian society,” he explains. “Whether you are unemployed in a Lebanese refugee camp, or an IDP (internally displaced people) in Idlib, or a young student in Damascus, the tools are there for you to make productive use of that space to earn a respectable income, and connect to the global economy. This is a powerful incentive for Syrians, because it offers them the two things that they seek the most: freedom and dignity. Technology could offer be part of the solution for Syria, and SDL is at the forefront of that.”Meet Harbuk: Syria's First Online Shopping Platform